chapter  5
30 Pages

His Sister’s Song

In 1990, I taught a course entitled “Women and Literature” to a group of college sophomores, juniors, and seniors, most of whom were not English majors. I taught the course as a survey of eighteenth-century women novelists. We began with Jane Austen’s Persuasion and worked backwards from Frances Burney’s Evelina, to Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall, to Sarah Fielding’s David Simple to Aphra Behn’s Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister. In spite of what I still regard as the aphoristic truth of Brigid Brophy’s remark that “the most fascinating subjects in the universe are sex and the eighteenth century,” the choice of material for this particular class was probably a mistake.1 The students’ needs and interests would have been better served by a more contemporary and a more contemporarily feminist syllabus. Still, there was one moment that has stuck with me for over fifteen years. It happened late in the term, during the two-week period in which we discussed Behn’s Love Letters. A student who was also taking a course in the Victorian novel came up to me after class and asked me this question: “What happened?” As she elaborated on that theme, it became clear that her perplexity could be better stated thus: “Since Aphra Behn had, in Virginia Woolf’s words, earned women the right to speak their minds, why did they stop doing so during the nineteenth century?2 Why did the fiction of that time, even fiction written by women, depict so many suffering angelic women or demonized transgressive women?” To me, today, the question seems to encompass this book’s prevailing concern: “What had happened to female desire, subjectivity, and agency?”